Myanmar: Almost 100 prisoners of conscience behind bars ahead of elections following intensifying repression

Myanmar’s authorities have been locking up and harassing scores of peaceful activists as part of an intensifying and far-reaching crackdown ahead of November’s elections, Amnesty International said as it launched a new campaign to free prisoners of conscience today.

A new Amnesty International briefing – ‘Back to the old ways’ – exposes how repression has drastically picked up pace over the past two years, in stark contrast to official claims that not a single person is imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights.

The organization believes there are at least 91 prisoners of conscience currently behind bars in Myanmar, although the actual number is likely to be higher. This represents a dramatic increase since a wide-ranging presidential pardon at the end of 2013 when Amnesty International was aware of just two prisoners of conscience.

Myanmar’s government is trying to spin an alternate reality where all is rosy for human rights, which the international community is far too eager to accept. The reality on the ground could not be more different.

Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Myanmar Researcher

“Myanmar’s government is trying to spin an alternate reality where all is rosy for human rights, which the international community is far too eager to accept. The reality on the ground could not be more different. Authorities have intensified a chilling crackdown on freedom of expression over the past year,” said Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Myanmar Researcher.

“The numbers speak for themselves – we believe that almost 100 peaceful activists are currently detained, while hundreds more are facing charges. President Thein Sein must immediately free all prisoners of conscience and put an end to the repressive practices that fuel arbitrary arrests.”

The clampdown has affected a range of people perceived as “threats” to the government, including human rights defenders, lawyers, opposition activists, students, trade unionists and journalists.

The briefing documents seven cases emblematic of Myanmar’s new generation of prisoners of conscience. These include student leader Phyoe Phyoe Aung, who is facing over nine years in prison for organizing protests in early 2015 against a new law that restricts academic freedom; and Zaw Win, a lawyer currently detained simply for using a megaphone to call for an end to judicial corruption outside a court in Mandalay Region in May 2014.

Amnesty International has also documented a marked surge in repression as Myanmar’s general elections, scheduled for 8 November 2015, have drawn closer. Peaceful activists have been more often charged with offences without bail and kept in pre-trial detention for extended periods, while prison sentences have become longer.

“Myanmar’s authorities have clearly been playing a long game ahead of the elections, with repression picking up pace at least nine months before the campaigning period started in September. Their goal has been straightforward – take ‘undesirable’ voices off the streets way ahead of the elections and make sure they’re not heard,” said Laura Haigh.

Myanmar relies on a range of draconian laws to arrest and imprison government critics. These laws contain provisions prohibiting, among other things, unlawful assembly, “disturbing state tranquillity” and “insulting religious feelings”.

The climate of fear is compounded through other forms of intimidation, which include a pervasive system of monitoring and harassment. Activists are subjected to constant surveillance including being followed, having their photo taken when attending events, midnight “inspections” of their offices and homes, and harassment of family members.

Many prisoners of conscience in Myanmar have faced several previous stints in jail, and are often re-arrested and handed new prison sentences shortly after being released, creating a “revolving door of repression”.

One month ahead of the 8 November general elections, Amnesty International calls on the Myanmar government to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience; drop pending charges against those who have simply exercised their human rights peacefully; and repeal or amend all laws that violate human rights.

The organization also urges the international community, which has largely relaxed pressure on Myanmar over the past two years, to step up efforts to push President Thein Sein to release all prisoners of conscience in Myanmar.

“World leaders cannot take at face value Myanmar’s claims to have ended repression. The election offers a crucial opportunity for governments to make clear to Myanmar’s authorities that locking up and silencing peaceful critics is unacceptable. It’s an opportunity that mustn’t be missed,” said Laura Haigh.